New Attacks Suggest Moscow Rapidly Losing Control Over Dagestani Population

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 96

(Source: The Moscow Times)

Executive Summary:

  • The deadly Islamist violence against Christian and Jewish centers in two Dagestani cities is the latest in a string of such actions involving Dagestanis and a continuation of the tectonic shifts there that cast doubt on Moscow’s control.
  • These developments are rooted in Dagestani society but have been exacerbated by Kremlin policies that undermine Moscow’s ability to rely on repression alone.
  • As a result, more Russians are questioning Putin’s claim to have pacified the North Caucasus—a major reason the population has backed him—and are pointedly asking why he has failed to protect Russia against Islamist violence.

On June 23, three Islamist militants in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital, attacked a Russian Orthodox church and a Jewish synagogue. The assault damaged both buildings and killing one religious leader and wounding several others. They also injured some of the law enforcement guarding the facilities (, June 24). Three other militants simultaneously attacked religious buildings in Derbent, inflicting similar damage. In both places, the Dagestani police and Russian security services intervened. After a lengthy exchange of gunfire, they killed all six militants, but only after the militants had killed ten people and wounded 34 more, according to official accounts (, June 23;; The Moscow Times, June 25). The Russian siloviki declared parts of both cities counter-terrorist zones, only to announce a day later that those designations had ended. Dagestani leaders announced a three-day period of mourning, and officials in Dagestan and elsewhere in the North Caucasus have put their republics on high alert (Kavkaz.Realii, June 24). These attacks reflect growing domestic instability as the Kremlin is fixated on Ukraine and suggest that Moscow is struggling to maintain control over parts of the North Caucasus.

Discussion of these latest terrorist acts, as Moscow immediately christened them, has dominated Russian media. The reaction of most officials and commentators initially followed the now-conventional script of declarations that the local population was and remains completely united in opposition to the terrorists; that the acts were therefore the work of outsiders, such as ISIS or Ukraine and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); and that the attacks in Dagestan were not the result of degrading conditions there or the actions/inaction of officials in Moscow and Makhachkala.

Three aspects of the current situation, however, have reduced the number of observers ready to believe that narrative. First, many violent actions involving Dagestanis have taken place in recent months, particularly the anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic actions in Makhachkala last October and the Crocus City Hall attack in Moscow in March. As a result, increasingly fewer Russians and Russian commentators are accepting the Kremlin’s version of events as the only possibility. They are now asking many questions, including the most dangerous of all: why has the Vladimir Putin regime not learned anything and stopped this chain of events, preferring instead to pursue imaginary enemies and leaving Russia undefended?

Second, the terrorists carried out two coordinated attacks in different places at the same time, something that has rarely been seen in Russia in the past. This clearly suggested to even the most casual reader or listener that the terrorist acts were well organized and not the work of a few disgruntled individuals. Unsurprisingly, many are ready to accept that ISIS was the organizer of the attacks (Kommersant;, June 23; Kavkaz-uzel, June 24; citing Institute for the Study of War, June 23).

Third, and perhaps most important, stories about the attacks featured a new and disturbing element. The father of two of the terrorists had been a policeman and was a senior Dagestani official until the attacks occurred. He has since been forced to resign and was arrested. The father likely knew that his sons were Islamists, which suggests he may have been himself or was at least sympathetic to their cause. To the extent that this is true, it already indicates to Russians that Islamism in Dagestan is not some marginal phenomenon but has spread into the elite. Some are even talking about “nomenklatura terrorism” (;, June 24). That reaction has prompted some Russians to demand a thorough “house cleaning” in the republic. It remains unclear, however, whether Moscow is even capable of such a response, given the cutbacks in the security forces since the war against Ukraine began (Regnum, June 23).

As a result, the Kremlin has lost control of the narrative about the Dagestani events and other issues. Dmitry Rogozin, former head of Roskosmos, for example, says that blaming Ukraine or NATO for Islamist actions “lead us to big problems” by distracting the authorities from the real threats (, June 23). Commentator Aleksandr Rodnyansky argues that the events in Dagestan prove that “the thread of Islamism is greater today than ever before” (, June 24). Journalist Kirill Shulika says that the attacks demonstrate that Moscow does not know how to fight this growing threat because the government is focusing on the wrong issues (Rosbalt, June 24). And observer Aleksandr Baunov contends that all this shows that Moscow is losing control over Dagestan and possibly more (, June 23).

The most thorough critique has come from former Putin speechwriter Abbas Gallyamov. He argues that the developments in Dagestan signal that Putin’s claims about pacifying the Caucasus are total fictions—thus depriving the Kremlin leader of a major reason Russians have supported him (, June 24). Gallyamov adds that few people will believe the regime’s claims that Ukraine or NATO are involved in Dagestan, or that the Kremlin is blameless for what has happened, just as they now question many of Putin’s statements. “As for the Islamists, with their attempts to stop modernity, turn back time, and recreate medieval archaism in the country,” he continues, “the authorities themselves are creating a favorable environment for them. When domestic violence is declared to be almost the main spiritual bond, is it any wonder that people who practice it … feel more and more confident? They gain an appetite and begin to make greater and greater claims, demanding that the country live by their rules. Here United Russia members can put aside the party charter and pick up the Quran with a machine gun.”

Three other analysts, one Polish and two Russian, earlier provided support for what Moscow commentators are now saying. First, in a new book, For Putin and for Sharia: Dagestani Muslims and the Islamic State (DeKalb, 2023), Polish anthropologist Iwona Kaliszewska argues that Dagestan is already “the freest republic in Russia” because “decolonization based on religion has already occurred there” (Kavkaz.Realii, December 8, 2023). Second, Moscow sociologist Evgeny Varshaver says that the preconditions were laid by the Putin regime itself, which has reduced the salience of nationality and allowed the various nations of Dagestan to come together on the basis of religion. This is a major reason why they act as Muslims even more than as Dagestanis, let alone as Avars or Dargins (, November 28, 2023). Third, Moscow lawyer Dmitry Krasnov asserts that more than anywhere else in Russia, Dagestan is the place where the preconditions for mass protests are now in place (see EDM, November 21, 2017;, November 9, 2023;, February 10).

For all these reasons, the events in Makhachkala and Derbent may be a harbinger of Moscow’s loss of control over Dagestan and, even more fatefully, Putin’s loss of influence in Russia as a whole.